His self-appointed title of ironic prominence, goes against character, the “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau very generously shares credit with the small fraternity— Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Jon Landau— who authored the very first rock-crit manifestos and reviews of a new thing called “albums.” In the immediate wake of this group’s original work sprang hundreds of underground and alternative small zines and others of mass circulation and Album Oriented Rock format FM stations and helped make “rock” the critical/intellectual, cultural/political, and commercial/corporate behemoth unmatched in artistic enterprise since the Medici’s promoted a deep bench of Florentine talent . Of Jan Wenner, on whom he layers none of the praise reserved for actual writers, he says distantly but admirably that “by 2000 Rolling Stone was the largest left leaning mass circulation magazine in the United States, financing no holds barred investigative journalism with hide-bound music coverage.” Music coverage, lots and lots of it, over four decades of listening to albums 10-12 hours per day and writing at least a little about each of them—the web archive is monstrous— and the Village Voice paid him a decent living until the 1990s when Rupert Murdoch bought the Voice.
Beautifully drawn portraits of his friendships with Ellen Willis and Greil Marcus are a feature of the book. To them he cedes the big vision thing, the longer term, longer form anguish and rewards of writing the rock scene aesthetic as “pop” yes, but in a world historic fashion. Shakespeare was low brow once too— remember Huck and friends by the riverside playing for bits?
Christgau the memoirist’s New York City, like Patti Smith’s in Just Kids and Pete Hamill’s in A Drinking Life comes to life as a dynamic, but anchored, timeless character of it’s own. Great read. The Ellen Willis Reader a recent collection edited by the late cultural critics daughter Nona, Christgau’s god daughter, is moved up on my list! Ellen’s 8,000 word “Dylan” was an effort that she and RC lived together with, they shared a few late 60s “summers of love” together before the essay found a home in the underground sheet “Cheetah” (1967).